The Battle of the Boots

March 1, 2007

“We can begin by working together to increase the size of the active Army and Marine Corps, so that America has the armed forces we need for the 21st century,” President George Bush remarked Jan. 10, in a crashing non sequitur.

The sentence’s first part referred to Bush’s plan to expand US ground forces by 92,000 soldiers and marines, at a cost of $112.4 billion. No confusion there.

It was the second part (“the armed forces we need for the 21st century”) that clanked. Despite Bush’s words, it isn’t obvious that more “boots on the ground” are what we need. They certainly are not the only or most urgent need.

Under Bush’s plan, the Army would grow to 547,000 troops (up from 482,000) and Marine Corps to 202,000 troops (up from 175,000). His plan is debatable for both (a) what it might do, and (b) what it definitely won’t do. Take the second part first.

The buildup will do nothing to ease the current operational stresses caused by the war in Iraq. Even the Pentagon concedes it will take five years fully to recruit, train, and equip new units, so no new forces will enter the operational flow anytime soon. To the extent the sky is going to fall, it has already fallen.

Perversely, when these new troops are ready, they will be too late. Public support for the war is ebbing. Both parties know this, and probably soon will find a way to sharply reduce if not eliminate our ground presence. That would ease the stress significantly.

What about “future Iraqs?” If the new troops can’t help now, might they be useful in similar major counterinsurgencies to come

The statement “future Iraqs” is virtually self-refuting. Polls show that one Iraq war is quite enough for most Americans. That being the case, it is a good bet that it will be a long time before a President commits the nation to another long, Iraq-style slog.

So much for what the buildup won’t do. More worrisome are effects that the expenditure could produce—directly and indirectly.

The direct objective—especially within the Army—is to better prepare the ground forces for conventional, high-intensity combat. There is no doubt about that.

Vice Adm. P. Stephen Stanley, a top Joint Staff planner, said the buildup idea stemmed from a recent strategic risk assessment. The study found that Army and Marine Corps units, heavily focused on counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, had little time at home station to train for “full spectrum” warfare.

Expanding the two ground services will give their units more time at home, which in turn “will allow us to establish that full spectrum training capability that we need,” Stanley noted.

This rationale is especially important to the Army, which further affirms it with its commitment to the Future Combat System, Patriot air defense system, UAV fleets, and the like.

The question, however, must be asked: In which high-intensity war would we need greatly expanded US conventional ground forces

Today’s major-war scenarios feature huge adversaries such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Against those foes, experts agree, US air, space, naval, and special operations forces would dominate, with conventional land forces in a lesser role.

Given world realities, creating more ground forces looks like a marginal if not poor investment.

There could be a pernicious indirect effect: use of Air Force and Navy as bill-payers for ground force growth, with all that implies.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff, bluntly rejects such poaching. However, other Army partisans—especially retired generals of a certain stripe—call for USAF and the Navy to “live with less” so that the ground forces might have more. Cannibalism of that type would generate tremendous problems.

While it does not get public acclaim, the Air Force has been heavily committed in the Mideast for 16 years, in both combat and support roles. Equipment is wearing out faster than anticipated.

With modernization stymied, aircraft age has risen to historic highs, and USAF now faces what one top officer calls “a crisis” in modernization. The Air Force decided to cut 40,000 troop spaces just to keep the modernization program from going under.

In addition, readiness has declined 17 percent, and 14 percent of USAF aircraft are under flight restrictions.

Air Force leaders report that, so far, service funds have not been diverted to the ground force project. Still, we can’t help but notice that the period of danger has just begun.

Ground-force expansion, costing $6.6 billion this year, has a significant “tail.” Planned annual expenditures would go like this: $17 billion, $20.7 billion, $21 billion, $17.6 billion, $16.5 billion, and $13 billion.

When the expansion is complete, steady state cost will be $15 billion to $20 billion per year, according to defense analysts.

The Pentagon this year raised the budget to accommodate the expansion. The danger will come when inevitably the budget turns down. The cost of the extra ground troops will still be there, and someone will have to foot the bill.

We have said before and will repeat here: If genuine Army and Marine Corps needs are not being met, Congress should do what it takes to meet them. A corollary, however, is that Air Force needs are equally important, no less urgent, and should also be met.

The issue here is not the glory of the Air Force. The issue is whether the projected defense program, overall, is the best for the nation. For reasons we have enumerated here, we think it is not.

This is no time for a major expansion of ground forces. The adverse effects will be magnified if, in doing so, we sacrifice our dominance in the air, in space, and on the high seas.